I don’t usually like to write about a poem or a song; there’s an unspoken rule among writers that your work should speak for itself, the way that a joke becomes less and less funny the more you explain it. But I feel that my last poem, The Jihad of English People, could use a little clarifying.
When people talk about jihad, you know what images spring to mind. Arabic speakers know that ‘jihad’ means, first and foremost, a struggle – generally for a noble cause, such as that against harmful desires. In Islam the struggle against the base soul is the greater jihad, while armed combat in the pursuit of freedom from tyranny is the lesser.
But while every newsfeed is crammed with the horrors of Gaza, the personal uphill struggle of dealing with the uncertainty of staying alive for another day, or losing a loved one in a targeted missile while they play tag on a beach, or having a ten-minute warning to escape (to where?) before your house gets bombed, seems so much more weighty than all of the minor, incidental struggles I wrote about in that poem.
The jihad of a mother who not only has to deal with changing nappies, stopping her kids fighting, and keeping everyone fed and clothed and educated for another day, but also grieves for her nephews and nieces being buried are immeasureable. I cannot begin to fathom it, in my safe First World cocoon.
So I hope that it does not come across as fatuous to talk about the jihad of postal workers, or company CEOs. The logic behind the poem brewed like this.
I was trailing the kids across the park while fasting (me, not them) to collect a bag of borrowed clothes from a kind friend. We stopped for a while, and they played; we stopped in the park on the way home, and they played. When it was getting late, and I was ready to pass out in the sandpit, I realised we’d left the bag of clothes behind and had to go back to her house before crossing the park again to get home.
Not a major issue for adults with ordinary length legs, but for small children who are already worn out it was too much. Cue four-year-old meltdown. Now, my usual reaction to these relatively small annoyances is to throw the toys out of the pram myself (so to speak). ‘Why can’t my kids learn resilience?’ I moan. ‘Why aren’t they more patient?’ I stamp my feet. ‘I’m sure other people’s kids handle this so much better!’ I fume with irrational levels of overreaction.
Everyone, without exception, is driven up the wall regularly by their kids. They have that unique combination of knowing all your weaknesses (and how to exploit them) and being too loved to risk being abandoned in a bus shelter. There are times you just have to grit your teeth and get on with it.
When it dawned on me that instead of being offended that my kids weren’t living up to my expectations, and started regarding childrearing as a kind of personal jihad, all my frustrations about not being in a position to battle the great injustices of the world fell into their rightful places. Everyone, ultimately, is battling something.
Some are in a position to do jihad against tyranny, political corruption, institutional abuses (as the famous hadith goes, ‘The greatest jihad is a word of truth in the presence of an oppressor’.) Others have their hands tied by family commitments, dealing with a serious illness, or caring for someone who needs them on a daily basis.
You don’t have to feel useless in the great order of things if you haven’t been able to lie down in front of Israeli tanks or chain yourself to the railings outside Number 10; you are also shouldering a burden that’s making you stronger, soldiering on through bleak landscapes, whether internal or external. Everyone is, whether they know it or not.
A few are enabled to make their heroism public, but that’s not many of us. Rearing a family that will bring benefit rather than harm to the world IS a noble cause. You might have your kids for yourself but you raise them for society’s sake. Mothering consciously is like no work, no responsibility, that any company CEO has ever been prepared for.
So I salute those struggling everywhere, in personal jihads against addictions, depression, loneliness, fear, despair, existential void, illusion, and the intoxication of ease. It might be a war of contrition (as I’ve heard the battle against head-lice amusingly called) but at least you know you’re in good company. And may God grant respite to all those whose struggles begin by waking up to war.